Language differences don’t affect the way we hear music, study finds

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Rhythmic differences in our mother tongues don’t affect the way we perceive music, the study finds

Speakers of languages with a different rhythm do not differ in their perception of non-linguistic sound patterns like music, a new study by SISSA, the International School for Advanced Studies, shows.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, was based on the hypothesis that “native listening” (the idea that our mother tongue acts as a sort of auditory “template” and influences the way we perceive the sounds of other languages) also transfers to non-linguistic sound stimuli like music.

In the new study, Alan Langus, research fellow at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, Marina Nespor, SISSA professor, and colleagues found the opposite: that this “native listening” effect is limited to linguistic sounds.

The research was based on the “iambic–trochaic law”. “The way we group notes within continuous sound sequences is determined by the iambic-trochaic law (ITL),” SISSA explained in its press release, “whereby we tend to pair sounds of varying intensity or pitch into trochees and those of different duration into iambs. An iamb is formed by two elements in which the stronger element follows the weaker one, and a trochee is exactly the opposite.”

“Even the phrasal rhythm of a language follows either iambic or trochaic preferences, and each language has its characteristic rhythm: some prefer a iambic pattern (e.g. Italian) others a trochaic one (e.g. Turkish or Persian).”

In a series of experiments on native speakers of Italian, Persian or Turkish, the researchers tested whether the preferred rhythm of the subjects’ mother tongues also transferred to non-linguistic sounds or even to visual stimuli. However, the experiments provided negative results.

“It is true that the rhythm of spoken language influenced the perception of the sounds of other languages.” SISSA said. “However, we found no transfer of the effect to the other domains of non-linguistic auditory and visual stimuli” concluded Langus.

Source: SISSA

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